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A lasting side effect of Covid? For many, it’s depression

By Dr. Sharon Stills, NMD

It’s estimated that over 80 million Americans have been infected with Covid-19.  Of those, a shocking number have suffered long-term effects.  Some of the most common and lasting symptoms of Covid are psychological — depression, anxiety, mood disorders, even psychosis. 

A lasting side effect of Covid? For many, it’s depression

So if you’ve had Covid but still don’t feel you’re recovered mentally, you are not alone.  You should also know these problems are not “in your head” — there are almost certainly physical factors involved, and you may be able to help your own recovery.

The latest data

According to startling new research published in The Lancet, as many as one third of all Covid sufferers develop Covid-related depression, anxiety or other neuropsychiatric conditions within six months of contracting the virus. The study analyzed post-Covid health records of over 230,000 women and men to reach these findings.

Researchers tried to explain why mental health issues are a “long Covid” symptom for so many, and in doing so, stumbled upon another intriguing discovery: depression and anxiety appear to develop regardless of whether the case of Covid was mild or severe.  

This is important because it means that it’s more than the lingering damage from a severe infection. If it were, we would expect that the more severe your Covid symptoms, the higher your risk for depression would be — but it isn’t, so what’s going on? 

There is lots of evidence that Covid creates a range of neurological problems, including inflammation that may cause changes in the brain. But we also know that Covid — whether mild or severe — can trigger a torrent of troubling emotions, from worry about job loss to guilt over infecting family members to shame over the need to quarantine to the sheer loneliness of prolonged isolation. 

Conventional medicine tends to pick apart our health into distinct issues.  But that’s not how our bodies work. Our thoughts and our biology are woven together. So almost certainly, it’s the interplay between these “social” and “organic” factors that determines our mental health post-Covid. And really, this understanding is good news, because you can do something about factors within your control, especially the ones that involve your own thoughts and perceptions. 

Are you feeling down even after you’ve recovered from the virus? Don’t blame yourself, or think it’s all in your head — but don’t feel helpless either.  When you act on the factors you can control, you help yourself heal.  Here are some steps to try:

Reframe your perspective

Catastrophic thinking is a learned cognitive bias in which our brains start to select and highlight facts that confirm a certain fear, and ignore those that contradict it. Most of us have done a lot of catastrophic thinking in the past year and all this anxiety, worry and “doom scrolling” hasn’t helped anyone’s mental health. 

The next time you notice yourself dwelling on catastrophic thinking, try consciously challenging your negative thoughts. When you’re  “catastrophizing,” you might start out with a thought such as, “I feel bad today.” This thought may then expand to, “It’s only going to get worse,” or “I’ll never get better.” 

As you notice these thoughts, step in and literally say out loud, “Stop!” or “No more!” Next, use deep breathing, positive affirmations, meditation, journaling and other stress relief techniques to help you let go of irrational fears and refocus your thoughts. Over time, these techniques will make it easier and easier to restore perspective. 

In her book, The Work, author and healer Byron Katie wrote powerfully about how this process of remaining alert to and questioning stressful thoughts changed her entire outlook on life: “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts I suffered, but when I didn’t believe them I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.”

All of this isn’t to diminish the very real suffering that’s happened during Covid. The practice of reframing your perspective is meant to help you make sure you’re not carrying an even heavier burden — a habit of thought that blocks your healing. 

Support your stress response 

When you are under chronic stress, the constant tripping off of the body’s fight-or-flight response can create adrenal hormone imbalances and lowered thyroid function, leading to problems with mood regulation. 

When thyroid function slows during stress, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) hormone levels fall. If they fall low enough, you can enter into a state of hypothyroidism (low thyroid). Symptoms of low thyroid include fatigue and depression. 

In your recovery from Covid, you want to make sure that you are supporting your adrenal glands and thyroid so that stress-related issues don’t contribute to your depression risk. You can take our free Hormonal imbalance quiz to learn more about stress-related hormonal symptoms you may be experiencing. 

Covid depression — a sign you need more Vitamin D 

Research has consistently shown a link between Vitamin D deficiency and depression, including a 2013 meta-analysis that found that, statistically, people with low Vitamin D status were at much greater risk for depression.

Most adults in the US have suboptimal or deficient levels of Vitamin D, especially now after the long winter months and before the sun is direct enough to start producing Vitamin D in the skin. 

Fortunately, you can easily do something about Vitamin D deficiency, starting with daily supplementation with a good Vitamin D supplement. Plus, Vitamin D comes with the big bonus of strengthening your immune function — that’s why the data shows healthy levels even reduce the risk of severe Covid in the first place.

Natural antidepressants 

In my work with women, I have found that a combination approach to lifting symptoms of depression generally offers better symptom resolution and long-term results than any one single thing. In addition to steps I’ve outlined above, other natural holistic approaches to mood support include:

  • Talk therapy or counseling
  • Body work methods, such as craniosacral therapy (CST), osteopathic manipulative therapy (OMT), therapeutic massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Targeted amino acid support, such as SAM-e or GABA
  • Diet changes to reduce excess sugar
  • Other nutritional supplements like a high quality multivitamin and omega-3 fatty acids
  • Full-spectrum light therapy

Meeting with an integrative or alternative health care practitioner can be a great way to put together a plan to meet your individual mental and physical needs as you recover from Covid.

Covid depression: stay focused on your well-being 

Mental health self-care is something we can all benefit from, whether we’ve had the virus or not. This has been a difficult year, and even as the pandemic wanes, we all still need to take the best care of ourselves possible.

Whenever you can, practice even a few minutes of self-care. It really helps! 

Last Updated: April 15, 2024
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